Pride in Service
As society continues to strive for equal rights, we rejoice in progress as it comes.
The story of progress is told through milestones achieved and small victories that have come throughout the years. Several of these triumphs affect our military community and have served to increase the diversity and strength of our fighting forces. During the early 80s, the Department of Defense banned gay and lesbian men and women from serving in the U.S. Military. This policy remained in place until 1993 when Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) was instituted. This new standard allowed closeted LGBTQ+ individuals to serve, but if their sexual identities were revealed, they would be discharged from service. With the repeal of DADT in 2011, gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women were allowed to serve while being open about their sexual identity. Progress continued as we marched through the early 2010s and benefits were extended to same-sex partners and - finally, a temporary ban on transgender service members in 2016 was repealed in 2021.
While these achievements have been monumental steps forward in our march to equity and inclusion, we still have a long way to go in making everyone feel accepted for who they are and valued for what they contribute. In celebration of Pride, we are highlighting members of the LGBTQ+ community for their outstanding service and contributions to life in the Tri-Base. Look for these highlights on our socials and our blog. We will also be highlighting some great Pride events that will be happening throughout the month.
Each week in June, check back here for a new highlight featuring an outstanding member of the LGBTQ+ community right here at RAF Lakenheath!
Upcoming Pride Events
LGBTrivia Night, Out & Proud
Wednesday • June 28 | 7pm - 9pm
Liberty Club Ballroom
Join us for a special LGBTQ+ trivia night!
Community Member Spotlight
Senior Master Sergeant Patrick Bolden Jr. (PJ)
SMSgt Bolden has served in the Air Force for 17 years as part of the 3F5 Administration community. He has been stationed at RAF Lakenheath for the past 9 months and serves as the Postal Operations Superintendent, where he oversees the vital operations of mail delivery, mission assets, and morale for the Wing and Tri-base area.
We asked SMSgt Bolden to share his personal story with us and he graciously accepted the invitation.
My experience serving in the United States Air Force under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy and the repeal of DADT in 2011 had a profound impact on my life. Having served under DADT from 2005 - 2011, it was undeniably stressful. It meant hiding a significant part of who I am, which contradicted the Air Force's core values of integrity and honesty. The fear of being discovered and facing potential repercussions created an internal struggle, constantly weighing on my mind and affecting my overall well-being. However, when DADT was repealed in 2011, it was a transformative moment for me. The opportunity to finally come out of the closet and serve as my authentic self was life-changing. It brought a sense of relief, freedom, and a renewed passion for my service and ability to serve. No longer burdened by secrecy, I could fully embrace my identity and bring my whole self to my military duties. Since then, I have been dedicated to using my experiences to influence change, motivate others, and show them the possibilities of success as their authentic selves. I strive to be a positive role model, not only for fellow LGBTQ+ service members but for everyone who may be struggling with their identity or facing adversity. I am incredibly proud of the changes and strides that the Department of Defense has made for the LGBTQ+ community. The recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion within the armed forces has been remarkable. The implementation of policies that protect LGBTQ+ individuals from discrimination, the extension of benefits to same-sex partners, and the increased support networks have made a significant difference in the lives of many. These changes have not only fostered an environment of acceptance and equality but have also allowed individuals like me to openly serve and contribute to the mission with authenticity and pride. I share this story with you to highlight the progress we have made and to express my gratitude for the steps taken by the DoD to support the LGBTQ+ community. It is my hope that by sharing my heartfelt journey, others may find inspiration and know that they too can lead, love who they want, and serve as their authentic selves.
When asked what he enjoyed most about being part of the LGBTQ+ community on RAF Lakenheath SMSgt Bolden shared information about this incredible, supportive group and how they support one another.
- Our LGBTQ+ community within the Tri-base area plays a crucial role in influencing change, providing a safe haven, and offering valuable resources and educational tools. First and foremost, Tri-base LGBTQ+ Allies serve as a support system for individuals who may be facing unique challenges and hardships. It provides a safe and inclusive space where LGBTQ+ service members, civilians, and youth can come together, share experiences, and find solace in knowing they are not alone. This sense of belonging can be immensely empowering, especially for those who may have previously felt isolated or marginalized. Moreover, we play a vital role in influencing change within the military culture. By advocating for equality and acceptance, they help shape policies, practices, and attitudes that promote inclusivity and respect for all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This influence can be seen in the strides made toward eradicating discrimination, fostering a climate of understanding, and creating opportunities for career advancement and leadership roles within the military. The presence of the LGBTQ+ community also brings about a wealth of resources and educational tools. These resources can range from support networks and counseling services to educational workshops and training programs. By showcasing the diverse talents, strengths, and contributions of our LGBTQ+ Airmen, they challenge stereotypes and break down barriers. This visibility helps combat prejudice and discrimination, creating a more inclusive and accepting environment for everyone. In summary, our community is a powerful force for positive change contributing to a more inclusive military and society at large.
SMSgt Bolden shared his advice for people serving and sharing a community alongside LGBTQ+ members as well as some resources to expand knowledge and get involved.
- Approach interactions with LGBTQ+ members with an open mind and respect for their experiences and identities. Treat everyone with dignity and equality.
- Take the initiative to learn more about LGBTQ+ issues, terminology, and the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ in the military. This will help you better understand their perspectives and support them effectively.
- Consider joining or attending one of our LGBTQ+ Allies private org meetings. Our group provides a supportive community and opportunities to engage in dialogue, education, and advocacy.
- Like and join the "LGBTQ initiative team (LIT)" on Facebook to connect with like-minded individuals and stay updated on relevant news, events, and resources.
- Actively engage and educate yourself in order to create an inclusive environment and influence positive change for those who may not yet understand or support the LGBTQ+ community.
- Please remember that specific resources and organizations may vary over time, so it's recommended to check with us for the most up-to-date information on available resources and opportunities for involvement. Thank you for your commitment to expanding knowledge and fostering inclusivity alongside LGBTQ+ service members.
First Term Airman, Kevin Hernandez
Kevin Hernandez has been stationed here in the UK since 2021. Kevin loves that the tri-base area is a melting pot of people from all walks of life. As a first-term airman on his first overseas tour, it has been a wonderful experience for him because he was able to find and be surrounded by the LGBTQ+ community and allies from the start.
He stays involved by participating in events with the LGBT+ Allies group because it gives him a sense of home. Diversity & Inclusion Day in 2022 was such a thrill for him; he found it very eye-opening. He said to us, "I've never felt more comfortable."
Kevin has found great resources here on base with the LGBTQ+ Allies, the 48th Medical Group, the SAPR office, and the Chaplin. They have been amazing and helpful aids for him and hopes that others can be educated about the support systems we have on base.
Kevin wanted to share one last piece of advice with us:
Be patient yet persistent, the change starts with you. Above all, don't hide the personal challenges you are facing, its okay to ask for help.Kevin Hernandez
Staff Sergeant Wayne Susuico
Our next highlight is Wayne Susuico! When he was younger, Wayne underwent a journey of self-acceptance regarding who he was and his sexuality. He was fortunate enough to grow up in a family that was LGBT-oriented, loving, and supportive, so "coming out" wasn't necessarily a daunting experience for him. However, Wayne still struggled with his self-esteem and identity. Enlisting in the military was a big change for him, as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" had just been repealed, leaving him feeling as though he needed to "come out" all over again. However, throughout the years Wayne has made meaningful connections and heard the stories of other LGBT community members, inspiring him to embrace his sexuality and live a proud life. He has also been pleasantly surprised by how accepting the men and women he work with have been towards him. Their acceptance is what motivated him to re-enlist and continue to build his career in the military. Having started out in aerospace propulsion, Wayne has served in the Air Force for ten years now.
In the Tri-base area, where he has been stationed for almost a year now, Wayne enjoys just how involved and supportive everyone in the LGBTQ+ community is - no matter if they're active duty, dependents, or local nationals - and noted that this is the first base where he's been heavily involved with the community himself. He also pointed out several resources that are available to the LGBTQ+ community, including on-base resources such as Diversity & Inclusion, SAPR, chaplains, medical professionals, and the LGBT+ Allies organization he's a part of, as well as off-base ones like Outreach Youth, Stonewall, and MindOut. Wayne is grateful for the support he has received from airmen and friends he's met throughout his career, and he's proud of the experiences that have led him to where he is today. Wayne's advice is to:
Be yourself and stay true to who that is. Love who you want to love and do the things that make you feel alive!by Wayne Susuico
Lt Gen Leah Lauderback
Our last Pride spotlight features a service member who has been making a huge difference in the overall culture and attitude surrounding the LGBTQ+ experience in the U.S. military. Lt Gen Leah Lauderback has been serving since November of 1993. She served throughout the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era when gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals had to stay closeted in order to remain in service. She is now a leader of the Air Force's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer/Questioning Initiative Team (LIT) addressing issues that primarily affect LGBTQ+ airmen. No longer in the shadows, she is pioneering what it means to be out and proud while serving our country, a relatively new concept in equality. We had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her overall experience in the Air Force as a gay woman and are proud to share her responses and advice with you.
Q. Please tell us about your affiliation with the USAF.
A. I am an Airmen of 30 years in the USAF! I've loved just about every day of my career and still enjoy putting my uniform on! My present position is as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) and Cyber Effects Operations.
Q. How long and in what capacity have you been serving at your current duty station?
A. I've been stationed at the Pentagon a few times in my career. This current assignment started in August 2022, however I was in a previous position with the USSF from August 2020 until August 2022. Coming up on three years in the building! I've had a previous four years in the Pentagon though… I learned a long time ago that as a young officer going to the Pentagon, it was not going to be my last assignment there.
Q. If you'd like to share, please tell us your personal story. This can be about coming out as LGBTQ in the military or any part of your personal story you would like to share with our audience.
A. I started my career in 1993 and discovered my true self as a gay woman in 1997. I came out to a small group of friends as I started dating my then girlfriend. We were together for eight years, and of course all this time I was hiding under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT). It was quite scary for a number of years - I was paranoid everyday about losing my career but eventually over the coming years I could tell the tide was turning and more people were accepting of gay military members. I felt comfortable enough to tell a co-worker in each assignment - I did so because I needed someone to know about contacting my girlfriend if anything happened to me while deployed or on a TDY.
The lifting of DADT in 2011 was quite liberating! I didn't come out to all of my co-workers immediately, but when I met my now wife in 2012 I did not want to hide anymore. I knew that I would be accepted, and knew that I had equal opportunity policy to protect me should anyone hold something against me for being gay.
It was a fairly easy professional "coming out" for me, but I know there are many members for whom it was not, nor still is not. I would like these folks to know that we've established the LGBTQ Initiatives Team (LIT) as one of the Department of the AF's Barrier Analysis Working Groups. While the LIT is trying to break down barriers and change policies, we are also there for members who just need a shoulder to lean on or advice for their personal situations.
Q. What is the best thing about the LGBTQ+ community in the United States Air Force?
A. The best thing about our community within the AF [is that] leaders of all ranks – civilian and military – and our allies are passionate about building an inclusive environment. This group of professionals is excited for the future. They are not shy about identifying policies to change [and] will fiercely stand for what is right.
Q. Are there any resources, groups, or advice you'd like to share with our audience?
A. Advice I would give to others – From a perspective of building a more inclusive Service (USSF or USAF), I would like members to bring forth issues and concerns in this form: 1) Do the research and make it an unemotional argument. 2) Determine or cage the argument in terms of risk – what risk will the Service take if we do or do not make this change you are suggesting. And lastly, 3) If we can show the impact to our wartime readiness, then we have a much better chance of getting the policy changed or updated. Does this affect how/when we can send someone on deployment? Does it affect a unit's training status, etc.
Check back here next week when we highlight another incredible member of our LGBTQ+ community here in the Tri-base!
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